Argentina’s economy minister Sergio Massa has won the first round of presidential elections, in a victory for the centre-left populist coalition over libertarian challenger Javier Milei.
With 91 per cent of votes counted, Massa, who hails from the country’s Peronist movement, won 36.3 per cent, against 30.2 per cent for Milei’s La Libertad Avanza party (LLA). Patricia Bullrich, the candidate for the mainstream centre-right opposition bloc Juntos por el Cambio (JxC), had 23.8 per cent.
Massa and Milei will advance to a run-off on November 19. The elimination of JxC, which had been seen as occupying the ideological middle ground between LLA and the Peronists and was the favourite of most investors’ and business leaders, sets the stage for a polarising second-round campaign.
The result overturned most projections. Milei had won a narrow victory at a closely watched primary in August, in which Massa came third, and had consistently maintained a lead over rivals in public polling.
As economy minister under outgoing president Alberto Fernández, Massa has overseen a worsening economic picture over the past 14 months. Inflation hit 138 per cent year on year in September while Argentina’s foreign currency reserves have been drained to support the plunging peso despite tightened currency and price controls.
Massa also doled out pre-election handouts and tax cuts worth about 2 per cent of gross domestic product.
A veteran political figure from the right of the Peronist movement that has dominated Argentine politics for the past 40 years, Massa has pledged to stabilise the economy if elected.
Milei ran a furious campaign against mismanagement and corruption by Argentina’s political establishment, while promising to slash spending by up to 15 per cent of GDP and dollarise the economy to stamp out inflation.
The Peronists also triumphed in the closely contested gubernatorial election in Buenos Aires province, where more than a third of Argentines live.
With 86.5 per cent of votes counted, governor Axel Kicillof, a close ally of former Peronist president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, had 44.9 per cent, against 26.6 and 24.6 per cent for his JxC and LLA rivals respectively.
Milei’s insurgent campaign has been fuelled by widespread frustration in Argentina after several decades of chronic economic woes.
But he has also courted controversy with support for radical ideas including legalising the sale of human organs and referring to Pope Francis, a former Buenos Aires archbishop, as “evil’s representative on earth”.
While markets had been unnerved by Milei’s plans to overhaul the economy, the Peronists’ strong performance may hit Argentina’s bonds and the peso, said Martín Rapetti, executive director of economics consultancy Equilibria.
“Massa promises much better governability than Milei, but the market consensus has doubts about whether Massa really wants to or is able to do the reforms that Argentina needs,” he said.